Clocks and Boxes — Part 10: Spine

Delia had been hoping not to have to talk to Alfred directly. Nalda had refused to work as her envoy for some obscure Teutonic cyborg reason. Delia hadn't yet come up with a Plan B when Alfred walked into Storage Universe. She shook her head gently. She really hadn't want it to come to this.

Alfred took his time looking at the items on display, as for the thousandth time he worked up his courage to talk to her. For the thousandth time Delia there was just more to the man -- that somewhere under the bald, chubby Clark Kent of his exterior there was a bald, chubby Superman.

Perhaps, just perhaps this might not be the thousandth time he disappointed her.

"Hello, Delia," he said as he finally willed himself up to the counter.

"Hello, Alfred. How's business?"

"Tolerably good," he said. "Tolerably good… that is not really what I wanted to talk to you about."

Delia lifted a razor-sharp eyebrow exactly one inch. "Oh?"

"I want to talk to you about Stavros…" he said, barely able to meet her eye. "Well, not Stavros, exactly. Well, a little…"

The eyebrow shot up another centimetre.

"I was invited to one of his meetings," Alfred said. "Two of his meetings. It seemed okay, at first. He was just asking questions… How do we know the Pyramid was evil? How do we know that the Pavilion was on the right side in the fight against the Barn? How do we know that protecting the Pavilionites won't bring down the Super Centre?"

Every muscle in Delia's face was still. In her heart of hearts, she hoped that Alfred wouldn't break down at the sight. He did.

"You know the rumours that Stavros is into some sort of… you know… evil magic?" Alfred said, staring at the counter to avoid her eyes. "I never believed it. Until the second meeting, that is. The meeting hall above the kebab shop doesn't have any windows, so it has some pretty serious air vents. I looked into one, and I saw… It was hideous! Hideous!"

Alfred took a deep breath. This time he didn't even bother waiting to be cowed into submission by Delia's sternness before continuing: "It looked like a cat," he said. "Up to a point. But it was… It was like a cat with no bones. And huge eyes… Do you read, Delia? Yes, of course you can read, I mean do you read books?"

"I'm very partial to the Punchinello range," Delia said. "It's a little publishing company, located right here in South Hertling. Mostly romance e-books…"

"Have you read a writer called HP Lovecraft?" Alfred said.

"Sounds saucy!"

"Well he isn't. He was a horror writer and thesaurus enthusiast. And he was a racist, which I used to think was okay because he was in the old days, but now some people are saying…"

Delia silenced Alfred by squaring her shoulders. "What did this charming fellow have to say about cats?"

"There were some weird, spooky cats," Alfred said. "In a weird spooky place… This all made more sense in my head. Basically, I think Stavros may have summoned one of the devlish Cats of Ulthar. "

Delia almost smirked. Almost. She had known McKinley the 'cat' for a long time, though it was only recently that she'd recruited him as a spy. McKinley was part of a weird local tribe of alley cats, all of which had huge eyes and rubbery limbs. He wasn't even the weirdest cat in the bunch. One of McKinley's friends wore a straw boater and a waistcoat, and Delia was pretty sure she'd seen another carrying a black Gladstone bag. She'd long since given up trying to figure out what exactly the cat-things were, but she didn't believe the fat, lazy, cynical McKinley could be a servant of evil.

But then, what was he?

With a deep sigh, Delia returned her attention to Alfred, who was prattling on about someone named Derleth. The nature of McKinley could wait. What mattered was Alfred. She had not wanted to recruit him as a spy, for fear that he would do the job for the wrong reasons. Now he was all but volunteering to do the job for a very different wrong reason.

Chaos. Her old enemy. It was right there in her shop, thwarting her attempts at categorization.

"So you believe that Stavros is in league with People with Lungs?" she said, getting a word in as Alfred began to run down.

"Men of Leng. Yes. I… I should tell Ms Shan everything. I don't know much about what Stavros is up to…"

"If you don't know much, perhaps you should learn more."

Alfred didn't seem surprised. He was not a great thinker, but he wasn't a stupid man either. Perhaps the shock of seeing McKinley had set the glacial drift of his brain moving at a quicker rate.

"I thought you might say that," he said. "Delia, I am not a good actor. I am not a good liar. Oh, I can manage a simple little falsehood like 'It'll be ready next week,' or 'I had it here yesterday', but big lies… No, it's not me. To turn up to that meeting week after week, wining Stavros' trust through deception… I can't do it. I can't."

Delia considered telling Alfred that he could do anything he put his mind too. But while Delia was more comfortable than Alfred with a white lie, she still had her limits. She simply could not say the words.

"Now I know what you're going to say," Alfred said. "That I could do it if I put my mind to it."

"Actually…"

"But it's the putting my mind to it that's the problem, Delia. Never quite got the hang of that."

There was nothing more to say. Delia hadn't had high hopes that Alfred would find his mettle, so she wasn't disappointed when he didn't.

"Perhaps I'm selling myself short," Alfred added. Delia resisted the urge to contradict him. When he began talking again, he muttered and didn't meet her eye. "Whatever Stavros is doing… I should do something. Keeping my head down… Can't… Spying might not be the thing… Is there something else? Some other way?"

Delia said nothing. She could see something happening with Alfred. Something she had not seen in him before. He didn’t even say goodbye as he wandered from her shop, muttering under his breath.

Next -- Part 11: Clues

Previously -- Part 9: Laws

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